Over the years, I have devoted my academic studies in particular to questions of authenticity, and an artistic as well as literary performance of indigeneity. In doing this, I have primarily focused on how native artists, musicians and writers challenge Settler ideas of what it means to be indigenous, as more often than not, non-indigenous people perpetuate harmful stereotypes about indigenous peoples around the world whenever they seek to depict them in any way, shape or form whatsoever. Now and then, however, indigenous peoples themselves manage to misrepresent their own as well as other indigenous communities, and this, too, deserves to be discussed.
One of the people who in recent days has unintentionally though rather successfully managed to use his own indigeneity – which he rarely describes as anything more than a heritage in the first place – in order to throw another indigenous community under the bus is the world famous Saami ice hockey player Börje Salming who dressed up as the Lakota chief and spiritual leader Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake (Sitting Bull) for a recent charity photo shoot. The idea behind the photo shoot, i.e. to make a calendar meant to raise funds for single parents struggling to give their children Christmas gifts, might seem rather innocent if taken out of contest, but this, however, is not the case.
Through his participation in the aforementioned calendar, Börje Salming is complicit in an ever on-going colonial, racist erasure of indigenous people on a global scale by aiding Settlers in publishing false depictions of indigeneity as something mythical, long lost and, above all, nothing more than an anthropological aesthetic to be consumed by the majority.
What makes this photo shoot even more complicated is the fact that Salming becomes both a perpetrator of racist stereotypes as well as an ignorant victim of discrimination at the hand of the photographer. Not only is Salming stripped of his own indigeneity in the picture in question, he is simultaneously knowingly or unknowingly used as a prop by a Settler photographer to make a racist depiction of another Native man. In other words, Salming is denied his own indigeneity in order to help further the idea of Native Americans as stoic, noble savages, belonging to a mythical past.
What’s worth asking in all of this is whether Salming himself suggested that he should dress up as a Native American for the photo shoot, or if this was an editorial decision made by the project leaders behind the calendar. So far, Salming himself has remained silent on the matter, so we really cannot be sure – thus it remains unclear whether or not he had any real influence on the photo shoot itself – but even so, the fact remains that the photo exists and that it, together with a highly othering caption, constitutes a classic example of casual racism and cultural appropriation, so often found in Settler art and racism whenever indigenous people are being mentioned.
At the same time, even though Salming himself hasn’t commented on the criticism, it has been made clear by the photographer Caroline Roosmark that Salming was rather keen on dressing up as Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake during the photo shoot, and as soon as the first voice was raised in order to criticise the picture, the photographer issued a standard faux-apology and dismissal so commonly used by members of the majority when accused of racism;
“Salming is Saami [thus indigenous], and heavily involved in questions dealing with minorities. He really likes Native Americans and owns a number of portraits of Native Americans. I thus think it’s more important that the picture makes a statement, than to consider whether or not it is controversial [or offensive.]”
However, regardless of the project’s intentions the fact remains that dressing up as an indigenous person, thereby turning an entire ethnicity into a fashion statement – i.e. a gimmick meant to ponder to Settlers’ misjudged ideas of indigenous peoples as mythical, noble savage – is an act of racism.
This still remains true, despite Salming’s own indigeneity as he in a Native American context for all intents and purposes would be coded as a white upper-class man, and his unintentional mockery of one of the Lakota people’s most revered historical men makes his claims to indigeneity on the whole seem rude, hurtful and above all un-solidary to a pan-indigenous, global movement.
Had Salming chosen to dress up as a famous character from our own Saami mythology, or simply worn one of our traditional dresses – this would most likely constitute the first time he’d have ever done so in public – his picture could have made a real impact and functioned as an inspiration to many young Saami who struggle with their own identity.
Now, instead, we’re left with a disappointing portrait of Salming in redface.